Grammar Nerd: Improve Your Professional Writing in Five Easy Steps

Most know that there is a time and place for catchy colloquialisms. Some know that contractions should not be used in professional writing. Most are unaware that every letter should begin with a salutation that ends in a colon. You can improve your professional writing quickly, simply by following these five easy steps:

 1. Censor the Colloquialisms

While it may be known what is meant, a colloquialism has no honorable place in professional writing. While you may believe that opposing counsel has “bamboozled” you, or the court calendar is causing you to “go nuts”, these phrases are, quite simply, inappropriately used if included in professional writing.

Colloquialism refers to the usage of informal or everyday language, and I dare to say that Mark Twain and John Steinbeck had a better handle on this literary device than the everyday professional writer. Not to go sideways, but colloquial expressions are an advanced literary tool that gives insight into the writer’s society, indicating how people speak in their real lives. This, unfortunately, is not the purpose of a professional document.

Mean what you say — use terms that are not open to interpretation, and do nothing to showcase your literary acumen. Colloquialism can be equated to realism, which is not the intent behind professional writing. I joked about not going “sideways” in this piece, but that colloquialism has no place in my professional arsenal. If you use a colloquialism in your professional writing, be prepared to explain your true meaning to those with raised eyebrows on the receiving end.

2. Cut the Contractions

If you are like I was, I spent most of my freshman year of high school editing my term papers to change periods and commas from 12-pt font to 14-pt font in order to simply meet the page requirement. However, by the time I was a freshman in college, I shortened everything possible to ensure I would not exceed the page limit.

While it is tempting to save your oh-so-precious space and use contractions, at the end of the day, it is not worth it. Contractions should not be used in professional writing, as it causes the writing to sound, well, less professional. Here’s an example: what’re your thoughts about this sentence? In contrast, here is another example: what do you think of this sentence?

Reading those two sentences, which contain similar content, triggers the brain differently. The first one may be geared towards a more familiar individual, such as a friend. However, the second sentence could be submitted to a professional acquaintance without a second thought. When writing professionally, just cut the contractions; it makes you sound more polished.

3. Audit your Audience

Knowing your audience is one of the first things they teach in elementary school; writing a note to a friend has a very different tone than a paper submitted to a teacher. After you complete your writing, review it from the perspective of your reader.

Are you too formal? Do you talk down to your recipient? Have you included technical terms that need to be explained or exchanged for simpler words? Did you give your reader enough context to properly understand your content?

I often analogize my professional tone to that of a pilot: when a commercial pilot speaks to another pilot, the use of acronyms is acceptable and wholly understood between the two parties. Contrarily, if my airline pilot began to speak to me about FBS and CAP and FAM, I would stare blankly back, as I have no basis or familiarity with these terms. This scenario could be easily rectified if the airline pilot used the full term instead of an abbreviation.

Being able to direct your language at your intended recipient will help prevent communication errors and misunderstandings.

4. Vary your Verbiage

Reading the same sentence syntax over and over becomes exhausting, just as reading identical phrasing becomes wearing. A rather simple way to boost the professionalism of the written word is to practice the use of synonyms and vary the arrangement of clauses.

Referring to Ms. Jane Doe as “my client” repeatedly is monotonous. Maybe you can spice it up a little bit and use the pronoun “she” every once in a while. If you really want to add some hot sauce, though, use a synonym. I can make it even easier for you: highlight the word “client” and click Shift+F7 in your Word document. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a little-known trick to pull up Word’s thesaurus, full of all the synonyms you could ever desire.

Just as using “my client” approximately fifty times in a one-page document is tiring, so is starting every sentence in the same manner. English is a wonderful language that allows you to shuffle clauses around punctuation, but still convey the same message. Use this to your advantage; alter the structure of sentences to prevent uniformity and monotonous repetitiveness. While we are taught the basic noun plus verb sentence structure in elementary school, prove that you have graduated beyond first grade and are able to use complex sentence structure.

5. Proofread to Perfection

Proofreading is straight-forward: read the writing to catch any mistakes before it is seen by the intended recipient. I had a legal writing professor that implemented the “white glove approach” when reviewing anything submitted to him.

I learned quickly that I would not catch all of my mistakes if I continued to review my writing in the same manner in which it was drafted. I needed to shake things up, and the easiest way I found was to change the font type. If I drafted my assignments in Times New Roman, I would not be as likely to catch my errors if I continued to proofread in the same font; however, when I changed the entire document to Garamond, my eyes were more aware of errors I had not seen previously.

I also recommend having a fresh set of eyes review anything written — whether it is your eyes after taking a break from looking at the writing or another person’ s eyes. Typographical errors are difficult to spot when it is your own writing, but trust me, others notice them when reading what you have written to them. I recently discovered that opposing counsel’s letterhead had misspelled one of the partner’s names.. .careful proofreading could have caught that mistake and prevented the faux pas. If nothing else, please be professional: proofread.